Ghana is considered to be one of the successful democracies of Africa. There have been seven consecutive elections without any substantial political violence and three peaceful transition of power between its two main parties – the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC). These peaceful transitions suggest a possibility of consolidation of democracy. However, this success story has been being threatened by rising political violence and political vigilante groups.
The political vigilantism is not a new phenomenon in Ghanaian politics but increased number of the vigilante groups and aggravated severity of their actions have transformed the issue into a major concern. Ex-President Mahama warned by saying that “Ghana is entering a dangerous phase” due to upsurge in vigilante groups which could influence the success of elections.
Vigilante groups affiliated with either parties operate in all of the regions (Paalo, 2017). NDC affiliated the Azorka Boys and the Aluta Boys, and the Delta Force and the Invincible Forces associated with the NPP are among the major political vigilante groups in Ghana. Recently, it was reported that a new group “The Hawks” has been established to ensure security for the NDC’s way into the 2020 elections. Furthermore, there are allegations in the media that NDC forms additional groups such as “The Lions” and “the Dragons”.
In the past, these groups led or influenced successful democratic demonstrations such as protests by NPP affiliated Alliance for Change against value added tax regulations in 1995 (Paalo, 2017). However, in 2017, Coalition of Domestic Election Observers voiced serious concerns regarding increase in their numbers and activities which poses a grave threat to electoral politics and democratic development, and attributing the responsibility of those groups to the NPP and NDC.
These groups, sometimes named also as foot soldiers, are praised for their efforts in election campaigns. NPP endorsed them in 2008 elections for door-to-door campaigning and again in 2016 as declaring the victory as an outcome of efforts of “these boys”. Similarly, NDC gave their foot soldiers certificates to acknowledge for their role in electoral victory of 2008. As a positive contribution to democracy, these groups were influential in monitoring ballot boxes particularly in rural districts in 2008 elections which was beneficial for preventing electoral fraud (Gyampo, 2010). This function was also present in 2012 elections and 2016 elections. On a negative note, this reflects the mutual distrust of parties against each other on safety of the elections and the possibility of intimidation of voters as electoral irregularities have been increasing.
Second threat the political vigilante groups poses to democracy is vandalization of state or public properties (Paalo, 2017). In 2011, NDC vigilante groups vandalized the office of a mayor (Bob-Milliar, 2014) and there were attacks against state properties by NPP vigilante groups. In addition, Delta Force stormed a court in 2017 to free some members of their group charged for certain crimes and vandalized court properties and nearly assaulted the judge.
Continuous protests and public disturbances caused by political vigilantism is another danger. In 2013, NDC foot soldiers assaulted one of NDC’s regional office upon a unfavorable appointment to them and a similar event happened again in 2017 when Delta Force attacked a regional security coordinator blaming him as not having contributed to electoral victory.
Furthermore, these groups have been committing unlawful taking of public properties after electoral victories of their affiliated parties. In 2017, a vigilante group associated with NPP attacked the offices of public services and illegally seized those by forcing the officials outside. Another group reiterated a similar act in another region. There were comparable acts by NDC’s vigilante groups after 2008 and 2016 elections when certain revenue collecting services were taken over as revenge (Gyampo, Graham, & Asare, 2017).
Violent encounters between these groups occurring more than often is another issue that undermines democracy. The vigilante groups of both parties were involved in violent clashes more than once in 2016 merely because of encountering each other or a dispute on who had right to protest that day.
A consolidated democracy is characterized as a political condition in which democracy has become “the only game in town” (Linz & Stepan, 1996, p. 5). Consolidation of democracy could be argued to be present only a few countries in Africa one of which is Ghana. However, the threat of authoritarianization does not decrease over time. Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) put forward certain behavioral indications of authoritarianism one of which is tolerating or encouraging violence (pp. 23-24).
Both parties have been relying more and more on their political vigilante groups for their security, particularly when they are in opposition. Former Chief to the Defence Staff warned about gravity of threat in 2017 by saying that although political violence is not a new phenomenon, “the difference at the time was how these groups act audaciously and with impunity exemplified by actions such as threatening the courts and preventing their operation.” The perpetrators of storming of court in 2017 had been let off the hook with monetary fines.
In 2019, President Akufo-Addo ratified Vigilantism Act, which prohibits acts of vigilantism and dissolves vigilante groups, in order to deal with the issue. Despite prescribing from 10 to 15 years of imprisonment for whom engaging in those activities, it is asserted that it does not address root causes of the issue and since high level of distrust of both parties against each other prevents them to dissolve their affiliated vigilante groups, the chance of success of resolving the issue is low. Furthermore, although it is reported in April 2019 that the two parties agreed on dissolving their affiliated vigilante groups, the opposition party NDC refused to sign final roadmap and vigilantism code of conduct in February 2020 arising from negotiations.
In conclusion, the two-party system and resulting zero-sum dynamics entrenched in Ghanaian politics has transformed competitive politics “a do-or-die affair.” This situation combined with rise of vigilante groups and incapability, unwillingness of police forces against them alongside with unwillingness of political parties to deal with the issue bring serious concern about democracy. Much more dependance on these groups and emergence of new ones on the road into 2020 elections could constitute a possible danger and a test for peaceful elections and democracy in Ghana.
Photo from “https://theconversation.com/ghana-has-a-serious-political-vigilante-problem-heres-why-114216”
Bob-Milliar, G. M. (2014). Party Youth Activists and Low-Intensity Electoral Violence in Ghana: A Qualitative Study of Party Foot Soldiers’ Activism. African Studies Quarterly, 15(1), 442–460.
Gyampo, R. E., Graham, E., & Asare, B. E. (2017). Political Vigilantism and Democratic Governance in Ghana’s Fourth Republic. African Review, 44(2), 112–135.
Gyampo, R. E. V. (2010). Political Apparatchiks and Governance in Ghana’s Fourth Republic. Educational Research, 11(1), 561–567.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die (1st ed.). New York, United States: Crown Publishing.
Linz, J. J., & Stepan, A. (1996). Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
Paalo, S. A. (2017). Political party youth wings and political violence in sub-Sahara Africa: A case of Ghana. International Journal of Peace and Development Studies, 8(1), 1–14.